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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 345-346

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Book Review

Opium Regimes:
China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952

Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952. Edited by Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000) 444pp. $60.00 cloth $22.95 paper

As the editors of this volume contend, opium is a drug with a "polymorphous character" that consistently "generated a wide range of problems for those who opposed its consumption" (25). That premise is borne out substantially in seventeen essays spanning the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, the authors of which deftly wade through the political, economic, and cultural ramifications of East Asia's narcotics trade.

The interdisciplinary and transnational approach avowed by the editors--indeed demanded by the topic itself--is not fully manifested in the volume, however. All but two of the contributors are historians, [End Page 345] considerably more attention is devoted to political and economic rather than social and cultural themes, and China's experience as the region's premier drug market over a single century frames the entire discussion. Readers seeking a more discursive (and more contemporary) understanding of the world opium trade may still refer with profit to McCoy and Reed's classic 1972 study. 1

The "opium regimes" rubric of the title persuasively integrates four sets of essays of generally high quality. These groupings assess the opium trade in the semblance of a global context, discuss systems of distribution and consumption in the late 1880s, describe efforts at drug control and resistance in the early twentieth century, and scrutinize the full-fledged narcotics emergency attendant upon the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). "Opium regimes" refers to systems, whether state or corporate, that assert their capacity "to control certain practices" and develop "policies and mechanisms to exercise that right" within some presumed territory (4-5). The concept is elastic enough to embrace institutions ranging from formal state or international agencies (the Guomindang, Japanese occupation governments, and the League of Nations) to business or civic organizations (the British East India Company and China's National Anti-Opium Association in the 1930s).

Although the editors' assertion that "opium had an impact greater than that of any internationally traded commodity" on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century China might be an exaggeration, these essays collectively make a strong case for opium's pervasive, and not always malign, repercussions (1). Opium was interwoven with mass consumer demand, peasant cash cropping, licit and illicit marketing schemes, foreign imperialism and the diplomacy of "semi-colonial" China, colonial revenue strategies targeting the Chinese in Southeast Asia, China's anti-imperialist revolutionary politics, and domestic political and fiscal regulation of drug trafficking by successive Chinese governments. This volume constitutes a new benchmark from which to appraise a troubling commodity and its tangled legacy.


Robert Gardella
United States Merchant Marine Academy


1. Alfred W. McCoy and Cathleen B. Reed, The Politics of Heroin In Southeast Asia (New York, 1972).



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